A new state study examined what happened with Oregon inmates released early because of Covid. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
An initial assessment of 266 inmates released early from Oregon prisons during the pandemic showed they were no more likely to commit new crimes than those who serve their full sentences.
The state Criminal Justice Commission said in a recent report that recidivism rates and patterns were comparable, and slightly lower, to a recent cohort from 2019.
From July 2020 to October 2021, Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of 963 adults to help alleviate the spread of Covid in Oregon’s prisons.The March report tracked what happened with those who had been freed for at least a year.
The commission found that within a year, 18% of individuals were arrested, 8% were convicted of a new misdemeanor or felony crime and 2% were returned to prison or jail.
Those numbers are slightly lower than the recidivism rates for individuals in a 2019 cohort, which had the lowest recidivism rates in the past 24 years.
“What’s interesting about this data is that the 2020 cohort had a higher risk of recidivism than the 2019 cohort,” said Ken Sanchagrin, commission executive director. “In spite of patterns of rising crime in the state, it doesn’t look like that has been exacerbated by the early release of these folks.”
They were being cited and released so they're not being booked into jail.
– Paige Clarkson, Marion County district attorney
“The report from the CJC confirms that, due to the processes that the governor’s office has in place, individuals granted clemency by Governor Brown pose a very low risk to public safety,” according to a statement from Elizabeth Merah, Brown’s press secretary.
Different views of numbers
Prosecutors and criminal justice reformers saw different results in the figures.
Paige Clarkson, president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association and district attorney for Marion County, said the data in the report appears flawed, and that the numbers don’t reflect what is happening in the community.
“Recidivism rates are based on arrests and convictions, and it’s typically measured after three years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people weren’t being arrested at the same rate,” Clarkson said. “They were being cited and released so they’re not being booked into jail and they’re not being tracked that way.”
It is common, however, for the state commission to evaluate recidivism rates at one, two and three years after release.
Andy Ko, executive director at Partnership for Safety & Justice, said that the state report points to the likelihood that there are many incarcerated in Oregon’s prisons who are no longer a threat to public safety.
“Prosecutors don’t generally like the idea of their convictions being undone. But what we have is a one size fits all system that tends to run on autopilot,” Ko said. “And it doesn’t always work or serve the public interest.”
The early releases came in seven rounds over 16 months.
“Rather than releasing adults in custody en masse, Governor Brown selectively granted commutations to non-violent offenders and released individual adults in custody on a rolling basis once she had assurances from the Department of Corrections (DOC) that the individuals had housing, a re-entry and release plan, and were not a threat to public safety,” Merah said.
The commission report said those released early qualified because they were particularly vulnerable to Covid, served at least half their sentence, were not convicted of a person crime, and recorded good conduct for 12 months, among other factors.
The majority of the 963 individuals released – 63% – were identified as medically vulnerable.
The state commission used a public safety checklist to assess the risk of recidivism among those released.
“The tool, which Oregon began using in 2012, examines a range of demographic and background data to generate a risk to recidivate score and is considered to be predictive of success or failure,” Sanchagrin said.
“This group had a lower recidivism rate even though they were at greater risk to recidivate, due to the fact that this group was serving sentences almost exclusively for drug or property crimes,” Merah said.
Throughout 2020, district attorneys raised concerns that the releases would strain the state’s public safety system and undermine the public’s trust in the criminal justice system and the safety of victims.
Clarkson cited that strain on law enforcement and the capacity of the courts as reasons why there were fewer arrests and convictions among those tracked in the study.
“Law enforcement was instructed to make less contact during the pandemic,” she said. “Officers retired and we have a shortage of officers across the state. Courtrooms couldn’t handle the same capacity.” She said that those cited and released don’t show up in crime rate data.
“Prosecutors don’t like the commutation process but the process and executive power are super important,” Ko said. “We have to have the power for commutation because sometimes we just need to change things and change them quickly.”
Merah said that in 2021, Brown granted only 5.7% of petitions for clemency.
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